What is the effect of the language and the central message of "If We Must Die" by Claude Mckay?

The effect of Claude Mckay's language in "If We Must Die" is to awaken and mobilize African Americans to stop the racist attacks from white supremacists. He encourages strength in numbers in order to rise up against these attacks, and he states that not fighting back would mean their demise.

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"If We Must Die" was first published in 1919, and was written as a response to the dozens of racist, white supremacist attacks and riots across the United States which occurred in that year. The poem is addressed to African Americans and is written as a rallying call. The main message is that African Americans should not passively accept the racist attacks aimed at them, but should fight back and, if necessary, die fighting.

In the first line of the poem, the speaker implores his audience not to die "like hogs." The implication of this simile is that when African Americans do not fight back, they die like helpless animals. One might also infer from this that that the speaker is equating passivity with dehumunization, and thus implying that African Americans should assert their humanity by fighting back.

Later in the poem the speaker uses a metaphor to refer to the racist, white supremacists as "mad and hungry dogs." With this metaphor the speaker is suggesting that it is the white supremacists who are inhumane. This is an important point because white supremacism often relies on the belief that African Americans are inferior because they are somehow less human than their white counterparts. Here the speaker is addressing, and subverting, that belief. The aforementioned metaphor also implies that the white supremacists are like rabid dogsirrational and unthinking.

Another important language feature in the poem is the repeated use of collective pronouns. Throughout the poem, the speaker addresses his audience as "us" and "we." In doing so, he hopes to emphasize the importance of African Americans acting together as a collective. The implication is that they have strength in numbers and that with that strength they can affect positive change.

Toward the end of the poem the speaker poses this rhetorical question: "What though before us lies the open grave?" This rhetorical question implies that African Americans have no reason not to fight. If they don't fight, then their lives will simply be, metaphorically, "open graves." In other words, it is better to die fighting, than to passively accept the situation and live a life that is no better than a prolonged death.

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